Skip to content

Fantasy adventurers & caves

As you know, Bob, life in a pandemic kind of sucks, so I’ve been pretty quiet here. But no more! There should be some announcements concerning an upcoming (Finnish) novel shortly, but in the meantime, here’s something RPG related.

I got to talking with a friend about dungeoneering in fantasy RPGs, and about why adventurers in semi-realistic games might choose to go underground. Since as an environment a cave is pretty barren, many of the stereotypical RPG dungeon quests are a bit silly if one is running a low-magic, quasi-realistic setting.

Thinking about this for a couple of hours, I came up with a list of 10 scenarios which might require adventurers to go deep into a natural cave. None of those really requires any magic whatsoever, and all are based on geology as we know it! Most are based on the simple fact that a cave is formed by flowing water: the water goes in at the top (via a sink or several) and exits at the bottom (via a resurgence or several) and between the two you can have kilometres of distance and hundreds of kilometres of passage. (Here’s a nice illustration.)

  1. The cave is used as a natural fortress by a band of antagonists (an orc tribe, a vampire slumming it, a dragon or a guerrilla squad of an invading army) who keep raiding the surface. Since not all the entrances are known, and therefore just guarding them is not practical, the only way to deal with the problem is to go in to look for the troublemakers.
  2. Something valuable (a ring of power, a chestful of gold coins, the little dog of a local prince…) has fallen into the cave via a rift or a sinkhole. Said rift is too small to enter, so a recovery mission will have to take another way in.
  3. The cave provides a concealed approach to something (the flank of an enemy, a forbidden valley, a castle that gets its drinking water from an underground stream…)
  4. When pursued by an enemy, it might be possible to lose them in a complicated cave system. Alternately, someone you are chasing could try to duck into a complicated cave to escape.
  5. The stream of a cave is discovered to contain traces of valuable minerals / organic components. Should we go in to mine them?
  6. An earthquake or a sinkhole suddenly opens next to an important location (the manor of a baron, the Great Wall of the kingdom, a sacred site…). Is this a risk, gelogical or otherwise? Only one way to find out.
  7. The village gets its water from a stream emerging from underground. Now the water has stopped flowing. What is causing this?
  8. A cave that has been previously used (as a mine, guerrilla base…) but has since been abandoned is remembered to contain something important (the buried body of a slave hero, a famous sword…) that needs to be brought out. [Yes, this is pretty much the classical dungeon crawl scenario.]
  9. A cave that has never been used is believed to contain something independently valuable (a rare kind of blind white cave fish, a three-metre stalactite, enormous crystal formations) that needs to be looted.
  10. Only two of the toughest hombres ever known have visited the bottom of this cave to carve their initials into the rock. Doing the same is the only way to prove your worth for (something…)

Undoubtedly there are more possible scenarios than these.

Published inenglish